“When has race ever affected your life?”
We were having this group discussion in my non-profit organization, SASY (Socially Aware Sisterhood of Youth), when a brave girl in fourth grade answered,
“I don’t mean to sound racist but this boy who was white called me a beaner when I was in preschool.”
Her timid eyelashes batted in slow shame while she spoke from a rocky, shy part of her throat.
We found that these seven words: “I don’t mean to sound racists but…” were treated as a safe foundation for the words coming out of the fourth and fifth graders’ mouths.
To our surprise, every time they laid the awkward PC netting, their following words weren’t even racist. They were just descriptive sentences. They were just honest facts and experiences that they’ve been through.
SASY is an organization based out of Berkeley, California, one of the most liberal, stereo-typically non-racist places on U.S. soil.
But, unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how many schools you name after black and hispanic leaders or how many pictures of Obama you have floating around. It doesn’t mean that racism is gone, and it definitely doesn’t mean that we are okay talking about race and racism.
I know it’s easier for us to pretend our skin color and hair texture don’t matter and that we are all equal. It sure takes a load off, but it’s harming our capability to acknowledge facts about our identity.
It’s turning our bodies physically stiff when we are in a situation that requires us to say the words “black” or “white” in fear of sounding racist.
My co-founder and I had to keep reminding our girls that them expressing their stories didn’t mean they were racist, they were just factual experiences that talked about race.
Our lack of comfort talking about racism causes confusion and begets a nasty, silent enhancer on the issue. Everyday we are losing grip on what racism is. We hear the word and think about the nasty footage from the 60s.
In our society, admitting to our own racism pretty much sounds like we enjoy burning crosses on the weekends.
But I have a radical approach that I invite you to try. What if for a second, we all agreed that racism didn’t mean you were an extreme reactionary? What if, for a moment we passed no judgement and let ourselves accept that yes, sometimes we have racist thoughts or just simply thoughts about race and it doesn’t mean we are bad people?
I am both black and white and have a front row seat to this uncomfortable space of race and racism. I’ve heard both races express their anger and confusion, and I might be crazy, but I think I’ve managed to figure out how we can actually make some progress.
So, how do we talk about this? When I say we, I mean black and white people together. How do we deal?
1. Acknowledge that it’s going to be freaking hard!
We’ve been handed some nasty historic leftovers. It’s huge. It’s ugly. It’s disgusting. It brings me to tears every time I think about it in depth. It’s something I know all of us have a hard time dealing with.
Understandably, white people are uncomfortable with this unwanted, historic guilt. They feel like they can do no right, they try, it’s awkward, they fail. We are talking about centuries of pain, blood and cultural starvation.
We are talking about gruesome acts, rape, murder, torture, the whole nine.
Also, this is not just something that happened 100 years ago, depending what type of historian you talk to, these are patterns that are still happening today, in some form, in the black community.
If that’s too abstract for you to take in, then at least understand that undoubtedly the impact of slavery and discrimination from years ago has dripped down into the modern black family, and has caused a crippling, dysfunctional effect in many homes. The mission in front of us will be no easy path to tread.
2. Get your hands on some good history.
The textbooks you grew up with won’t cut it.
The people who authored those books were just as afraid of talking about race as we are.
I can hardly tell my SASY girls the real story about Rosa Parks without getting in trouble from other authorities. It’s an intimidating taboo.
Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the best black leaders of all time, but if that’s the only black leader you know about in depth, then I suggest you do more research.
There are loads of others hidden in unpublished books and grandpa’s stories. Find yourself some good, un-sugar coated resources, be open-minded and learn.
Colleagues ask me why I think it’s important to teach the white girls in SASY about black history. I believe that when we are teaching a group of people about oppression, it could be any group, it’s important that the most privileged in the audience gets the concept. It’s not pretty to admit, but they carry the political power, they have the resources and it will take their concern to make big changes.
3. Feel your Feelings.
If we do a good job with the first two steps, we will probably be a little mortified, so we’ll need some space to feel our emotions.
We can express them, write them down, talk to someone who we know would understand. This is an epidemic that wounded us as a country, and thus as a world. We need the space and vulnerability to let go.
By the way, this doesn’t mean we should make racist jokes and act like they don’t hold weight or meaning. Humor is a powerful tool, but this issue is not funny.
Did you know that Germany had a grieving period after the Holocaust? It was to allow soldiers and victims alike, who had been traumatized, to release their pain. And, there are over 70 Holocaust memorials around the world.
The number of memorials in honor of African slavery in America is not as impressive. This fact alone is a symbol of how much we have swept the history under the rug.
4. Know that yes, we are equal but we are different.
I was having a conversation with a white person one day who was comfortable with acknowledging that we are different due to our race and it was one of the best experiences ever.
We were talking about a black student who wasn’t doing well in school. We were worried and sort of disappointed in him. We knew he could do better. She had said something along the lines of “…but, I don’t know what it’s like to be a young, black child in his world. I’m sure it’s really different.”
I was a caught off guard and oddly soothed. I felt like I had peaked into a future we all want to happen. You know, the part where we overcome global warming and achieve world peace? I knew she meant no harm and she knew I had open ears.
We need to start having more awkward dialogue about our differences. No we are not the same. Yes, my skin is different. Yes, that might impact me from getting a certain job. It’s the truth! I’m not stating this in an emotional way. I’m not stating this to spark up anger or defense.
I’m just saying it.
I need that space to do so. If I can’t, then those facts get hidden under politically correct garbage that paralyses my ability to identify myself in this world.
So, if you want to make change, not just white people, everybody, then you have to just say it. Get ready for the icky realizations. Get ready for the conversations that will be nearly impossible to execute with eye-contact. Know that the feeling of extreme discomfort is a sign that we are moving in the right direction.
“Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed, with all of the tension its exposing creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
~ Martin Luther King Jr.
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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
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